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Book Review : Entering the Little-Known World of the Maori Culture

April 24, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Te Kaihau: The Windeater by Keri Hulme (Brazziler: $15.95)

Author of the 1984 Booker Prize-winning novel "The Bone People," Keri Hulme is a New Zealander of Maori and European ancestry whose fiction blends the legends and rhythms of that Polynesian culture into a highly sophisticated contemporary literary tradition. Though the stories in this generous and varied collection are set in New Zealand and incorporate Maori phrases and allusions, they're no more provincial than an aria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa or a forehand drive hit by Evonne Goolagong.

Hulme is a world-class writer who has taken it upon herself to acquaint international readers not only with the little-known and largely verbal Maori culture but also with the way Maoris live now, a minority in an increasingly Europeanized society. Some of the stories and verses are poignant evocations of a rapidly vanishing natural environment; others deal particularly with the various shifts, accommodations and adjustments the Maoris have been forced to make in order to survive in a world they never made.

While some have accomplished the transition smoothly and successfully, others remain permanently on the fringes of modern New Zealand life, resisting and resenting the dubious benefits of "civilization"--the noise, pollution and crowding of the cities, an economy that forces them to work at uncongenial and often menial jobs; watching helplessly as their unique traditions are eroded and submerged by the relentless onslaught of alien values.

Dark Undercurrents

Despite their lyricism, many of these stories are dark and disturbing, the mood bleak with an undercurrent of violence, tragedy and loss.

In one of the most haunting tales, "Hooks and Feelers," a mother and father anxiously await the return of their son from a long stay in a convalescent hospital. The exact nature of the child's problem is revealed gradually; intimations accumulating until the full horror of the situation is revealed. The boy has lost a hand in an accident for which the mother was responsible. The story deals with the tensions between the parents, the unbearable guilt of the mother, the inevitable alterations in the child's personality. Powerful and unforgettable, "Hooks and Feelers" goes directly to the heart of a universal nightmare.

Many of the vignettes are brief, highly concentrated glimpses into the life of dislocated Maoris, a pastoral people bewildered and maladjusted in the bustling cities, seeking solace in drink that only aggravates their problems.

Sensitive Observer

In "Kaibutsu-San," a couple of tough Maori youngsters hustle an eager Japanese tourist into a card game with fantastic and amazing results, the technique juxtaposing fairy tale with super-realism. "The Friday-night crowd is everywhere again. Loud and rushing and rude and we're here . Man hey man, lissen, can you get us out?" The story expresses the plight of frustrated half-educated kids everywhere as defined by an acutely sensitive and knowledgeable observer.

Hulme's language mixes New Zealand slang and unfamiliar names of everyday objects with poetic imagery to extraordinary effect. Even when the characters are urbanized city dwellers, the exotic vocabulary is a reminder of essential differences. When no English word exists to convey Hulme's precise intention, she will invent one. "The Windeater. There isn't such a word, eh. There's a lot of us around though."

After explaining various possible meanings--a loafer, a braggart, a woman who participates in certain rites, a theft, a magic spell--she says, "But if you split it, a power leaks out and becomes a woman trying to make sense of herself and her living and her world"--exactly what Hulme has succeeded in doing in this decade's worth of short fiction and in her justly admired and at least partly autobiographical book "The Bone People."

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